GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators coach Billy Napier spent all offseason trying to calm the hype surrounding his ultra-talented but inexperienced quarterback, Anthony Richardson.
Good luck doing that after Saturday night’s showcase against No. 7 Utah.
Richardson lived up to his billing as a future first-round pick by rushing for three touchdowns — including the game-winner —in UF’s 29-26 upset at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“Heck, my wife could call plays with that guy at quarterback,” Napier said.
With all due respect to Mrs. Napier, her husband did a fantastic job of that in his Gators debut. Richardson completed 10 of his 13 passes in the first half and rushed for two early scores. One of them was a 45-yard sprint down the left sideline that will show up on highlight reels all season.
But Richardson was at his best late.
Arguably his most impressive play came with 12:48 left, after Montrell Johnson’s touchdown run gave UF (1-0) a 20-19 lead. Richardson made it three points. He rolled right, jumped and spun to avoid a would-be tackler. He then found Ja’Quavion Fraziars wide open in the end zone. Fraziars didn’t have to move an inch.
Richardson followed that with more enormous plays after Utah (0-1) regained the lead. He completed both of his passes on the final drive, including a pivotal third-down conversion. On fourth and 2, Napier told Richardson he was going to give him the ball with a chance to win it.
“My heart kind of froze,” Richardson said. “I’d never really heard those words, especially in a situation like that.”
Richardson didn’t win it there; he merely converted with a 9-yard rush. But four plays later, he saw the defensive end creep in. Richardson pulled the ball and raced right for the winning 2-yard touchdown.
“We all know the kid’s got physical talent,” Napier said. “We’ve known that for a long time. What has impressed me is his work ethic, his discipline, his detail.”
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Specifically, Napier said he knew Richardson was sitting in the locker room after the game nitpicking some mistakes after he accounted for 274 yards (106 rushing, 168 passing) in front of the largest season-opening crowd in stadium history (90,799).
Napier was right. Richardson said the jitters from his first start in The Swamp caused him to miss a few motions early. He figures Napier will nag him about loafing, too. That acknowledgement sounds like a dose of maturity and leadership from a player who has grown up a lot from where he was a year ago.
It sounds absurd after his breakout performance, but there were legitimate questions about Richardson entering Saturday. He dazzled in his 2021 debut, too, ripping off one sensational run after another against Florida Atlantic. He did more of the same against USF and threw well against LSU.
But he never gained control of the starting job; quarterback guru Dan Mullen stuck with Emory Jones instead.
His big plays were enough to land him in the top 10 on several notable far-too-early mock drafts. Napier did his part to minimize the expectations — or pressure — on his third-year quarterback. He’d rave about his talent before pointing out Richardson’s small sample size: 39 career completions and one start.
It’s 56 completions now, with two starts … and one game-winning touchdown to beat a top-10 team pegged as a preseason College Football Playoff contender.
After the game, Napier gushed about his Richardson more than usual; he, correctly, called him a difference maker.
UF’s first top-10 upset since the win over No. 5 Georgia in 2020 came down to red-zone execution. The Gators’ defense had its biggest goal-line stand since the one that clinched the SEC East at LSU in 2016, held Utah to a field goal on another drive and sealed the victory with Calvary Christian alumnus Amari Burney’s interception in the end zone.
The Gators? They scored touchdowns on all four of their red-zone trips, with Richardson accounting for three of them.
“I think we’re figuring out here that this guy’s a pretty special player,” Napier said.
After Saturday, there’s no denying it, and nothing Napier can do to downplay it. Richardson is a star.
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